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New red light camera law could raise cost of appeals

BY CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:48 AM

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Critics warn that putting municipalities, which benefit from fines, in charge of the process creates an incentive to deny appeals. Drivers could pay up to $408.
Appealing a red-light camera citation in Florida could be getting a whole lot more expensive.

Drivers who challenge camera citations and lose could pay as much as $408 under a new state law passed last week.

The law also puts cities and counties, who benefit financially from the fines, in charge of a new appeals process, creating an incentive to deny appeals, critics warn.

The penalty for red-light running remains $158, but communities that use red-light cameras, such as Tampa and St. Petersburg, can tack on as much as $250 to cover the costs of appeals.

The law, set to take effect July 1, is intended to iron out glitches with the red-light camera ticketing system. Often, drivers have not been advised that their fines will increase by $106 if they unsuccessfully fight their tickets in court. Tourists in rental cars snagged by the cameras were denied the chance to pay the lower fine.

If signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, drivers, including tourists, will now have as much as 60 days to appeal their citations. The changes also would help people ticketed while driving someone else's car. The vehicle's owner is required to submit an affidavit naming the driver, who will now get 60 days to pay the fine or appeal.

The bill includes other major changes. Drivers with overdue fines would not be able to renew their vehicle registrations. Cities would be banned from ticketing drivers who, while turning right on red, failed to come to a complete stop until after the stop line.

The changes were added as an amendment to a 226-page omnibus transportation bill. The amendment, filed by Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, whose district includes all of South Tampa and parts of Pinellas County, does not specify how cities and counties should handle appeals but allows them to use their code enforcement boards or hire special magistrates to serve as hearing officers.

Doing either could create a conflict of interest. Currently, appeals, which are usually based on 12-second videos recorded by the cameras, are heard by a hearing officer appointed by the court system who has no financial incentive to deny the appeal or assess a higher fine.

Municipalities that operate red-light camera programs, however, receive about half of the assessed fines and, under the new law, would also collect all of the administrative costs.

“There may be pressure put on the hearing officers to charge the maximum fine so people don't fight the ticket,” said Ken Burke, the Pinellas County clerk of court, whose office processes thousands of red-light tickets.

“That is a concern.”

Appeals should be handled by law enforcement instead of regular city employees because they require interpretations of the law, said Karen Morgan, AAA's manager of public policy in Florida.

“I'm not sure if they're trained to conduct that kind of hearing,” she said. “We would have to wait to see how local governments would set up these hearings.”

The process allowed in the new law is no different than that followed by a code enforcement board, which hears appeals from residents who have been fined for letting their homes fall into disrepair, Brandes said. Cities could hire judges to handle the hearings or contract with the court system, he said.

Pinellas County residents pay an average of about $40 in court costs to appeal tickets in court. If cities tack on high administrative costs, that would deter drivers from contesting their tickets, said Burke.

“That would seem to be a tremendous disincentive,” he said. “That's tremendously unfair.”

Brandes said he expects local government agencies to charge only between $25 and $100.

“We thought we should put something out there as a cap for what they can charge,” Brandes said.

Cities were granted leeway to operate red-light cameras through a 2010 state law, the Wandall Act, named after Mark Wandall, a Manatee County resident killed by a driver who ran a red light in 2003.

Three years later, the cameras remain controversial. Proponents say they change driver behavior and reduce accidents. Critics say they lead to drivers slamming on brakes and claim cities use the cameras to raise extra revenue.

In addition to Tampa and St. Petersburg, red-light cameras are in operation in Hillsborough County, Clearwater, New Port Richey and other small cities.

St. Petersburg, which has 22 cameras monitoring 10 intersections, issued more than 36,000 citations in 12 months. Clearwater, which has cameras at three intersections, issued almost 6,000 tickets in a six-month trial period.

Joseph Kubicki, St. Petersburg's transportation director, said city officials are reviewing the new law but had not yet come up with a plan on how to handle appeals.

“We're happy with the changes in the law,” Kubicki said. “We really think they made some common-sense changes.”

Despite his concerns, Burke feels the same way.

In February, he asked the six Pinellas cities that use cameras to stop issuing tickets, saying the system is flawed and making residents angry.

Most complaints came from tourists cited while driving rental cars who were denied the chance to pay the lower fine after their tickets were sent to the rental car companies.

Under the new law, they will have 60 days to pay the lower fine or to take their chances and appeal.

“That's a step big time in the right direction,” Burke said.


codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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